December 17, 2008

The Gyre of Passionate Intensities

After the UN's official for Human Rights in the Palestinian territories was denied access to Gaza by Israel, the New York Times described Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, this way:

He has compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi atrocities and has called for more serious examination of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Pointing to discrepancies between the official version of events and other versions, he recently wrote that “only willful ignorance can maintain that the 9/11 narrative should be treated as a closed book.”
In his capacity as a United Nations investigator, Mr. Falk issued a statement this month describing Israel’s embargo on Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, as a crime against humanity, while making only cursory reference to Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli civilian centers. Israeli officials expressed outrage.

In other words, Falk is not an "honest broker." The comment alleging support for 9/11 conspiracy theories is, of course, crude demagogy and reflects nothing of Falk's real questions about the implications for reductionist thoughts of 9/11, which are outlined in his book, The Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics (Routledge, 2004).

The first line above mobilizes without reference one of Israel's chief criticisms, which is that Falk "draws shameful comparisons to the Holocaust." Such policing of the Holocaust comparisons is nothing new. As a metaphor it is repeatedly called upon to advance Israel's national needs, and as a historical lesson it can easily be used to characterize the Palestinian/Arab threat, which as public figures like Bernard Henri-Levy still insist on asserting, contain the DNA of intractable Nazi sympathies. If 1967, the threat of annihilation was felt more directly, and so when there was talk of a coming Auschwitz, the public was fueled by deep-seated fears, a need for vengeful protection, and an identity-affirming aggression. "Never again" was not a mere phrase then, but an orienting principle that sustained the new state. It is so common a gesture now, however, that its rhetorical impact may be nothing at all.

Except, however, when it is brought forth by outsiders trying to describe the plight of Palestinians. Alain Finkielkraut has written of the comparative phenomenon in France, where domestic political positioning too often relied on the specious assertions -- and crude formulations -- which marked Israel as Nazi-esque and Palestinians an undifferentiated mass of assembled victimhood. Finkielkraut was correct in drawing out the historical obfuscation at work in that context. But there is a far different tenor in what Falk wrote in 2007:

There is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to unconditional evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the human species. Its massiveness, unconcealed genocidal intent, and reliance on the mentality and instruments of modernity give its enactment in the death camps of Europe a special status in our moral imagination. This special status is exhibited in the continuing presentation of its gruesome realities through film, books, and a variety of cultural artifacts more than six decades after the events in question ceased. The permanent memory of the Holocaust is also kept alive by the existence of several notable museums devoted exclusively to the depiction of the horrors that took place during the period of Nazi rule in Germany.
Against this background, it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust.' The word is derived from the Greek holos (meaning 'completely') and kaustos (meaning 'burnt'), and was used in ancient Greece to refer to the complete burning of a sacrificial offering to a divinity. Because such a background implies a religious undertaking, there is some inclination in Jewish literature to prefer the Hebrew word 'Shoah' that can be translated roughly as 'calamity,' and was the name given to the 1985 epic nine-hour narration of the Nazi experience by the French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann. The Germans themselves were more antiseptic in their designation, officially naming their undertaking as the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.' The label is, of course, inaccurate as a variety of non-Jewish identities were also targets of this genocidal assault, including the Roma and Sinti ('gypsies'), Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled persons, political opponents.
Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy. If ever the ethos of 'a responsibility to protect,' recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of 'humanitarian intervention' is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. But it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to do anything in the face of this crisis, given the pattern of US support for Israel and taking into account the extent to which European governments have lent their weight to recent illicit efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force.

His title, "Slouching Toward A Palestinian Holocaust," and opening paragraphs acknowledge the poetic groping for an arresting image in a time of desperate need. His grim conclusion is that Israel's effective control of borders and air, its manipulative and fluctuating blockades of international aid, and its policy of air-strike assassination have entrenched a reality of collective punishment that cannot be dislodged; it will go on and on, unabated by humanitarian impulses from without or within, the catastrophe scripted and certain. Still, he cites the Fatah v. Hamas proxy war in the territories, the hands-off posture of neighboring Arab countries, and the legacy of UN impotence and irrelevance, all in an effort to untangle the complex dynamics in which the Palestinians are trapped.

Any honest discussion of Falk, the UN, Israel, the Middle East's slow war, the prospects for a solution that would do less damage than the current state of affairs, and the place of fundamental human rights for those living encamped in Gaza will have to deal with the real assertions and real measures, and then talk about the path toward a responsible apprehension of real possibilities and likely outcomes. Instead, the New York Times demonstrates the wide-spread pattern of such cruel incapacity.